Reformatory’s reputation both haunted and haunting

Shelley Blundell

Although the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield has not been used as a prison since December 1990, it is far from being yet another ancient, idle building.

In fact, there are those who believe the reformatory is very much alive – and not just because of its visitors.

Officially opened in September 1896, the Mansfield Prison was meant to serve as an intermediate prison for prisoners too hard for the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster and too soft for the Ohio Penitentiary.

Built on the site of a Civil War military camp, the prison – construction for which had begun a decade earlier – was yet to be completed when its first group of 150 inmates was admitted. These inmates would later finish construction of the prison’s sewer system and the 25-feet-tall stone wall that surrounded the 15-acre perimeter of the prison.

While the prison was meant to serve “lesser criminals,” it did have its share of violence and strange deaths. And as every campfire ghost story has told over and over, with strange deaths come strange occurrences.

At least, that’s what the ghost hunters who visit the prison are hoping.

Frank Horvath, a board member and volunteer for the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, is an avid ghost hunter and has had paranormal experiences at the prison since he was a child.

“If the place wasn’t haunted, I wouldn’t be spending so much of my time there,” Horvath said. “Some people come because they think it would be fun to explore an old, abandoned prison all night – but most come for the experience of being in a haunted building.”

The historic reformatory is so much more than a ghost hunter’s paradise. Its historic tours (presented mostly during the day) cater to scaredy cats, too.

During the summer, the prison, which is owned by MRPS, is opened for general public tours. The prison also has built its own celebrity status, being featured in movies such as Tango & Cash, Air Force One and The Shawshank Redemption. It was also featured in Godsmack’s music video “Awake,” so more people have become interested in taking a look at the now-famous prison.

“Tours began in 1996 after our preservation society took over the building,” said Janice Urban, coordinator of MRPS. “We have grown from 3,000 visitors in the first year to over 40,000 last year.”

Urban believes many people want to see where the movies and other media images have been filmed. He boasted of some of the unique elements of the prison.

“The Ohio State Reformatory houses the largest free-standing steel cell block in the world (a fact that has been documented by the Guinness Book of World Records),” Urban said. “It is six levels high and has 600 cells in the area 50 feet high and 300 feet long.”

The society is currently working on funding for a $15 million restoration project and uses income from the tours to help contribute to the upkeep of the historic site.

But for those hoping to get a Halloween ghost tour, you may have to “give up the ghost” this year. According to the society’s Web site,, the popular tours are fully booked until 2006.

For now, interested readers will have to live vicariously through the tales posted by previous ghost hunters on the Web site or from volunteers like Horvath.

“Women have to realize they are in a men’s prison and that they get a lot of attention,” Horvath said. “They will get their hair pulled, get poked or touched.

“I have come to understand these things, so I don’t fear them as others would, but there are what I call ‘startling moments,’ when you let your guard down and then something happens.”

But keen ghost-gazers can take heart – there may still be cancellations for the tours. For more information concerning the reformatory, both its history and its tour availability, check out the society’s Web site at

Also, be sure to look for the Sci-Fi Channel’s special on the reformatory, “Ghost Hunters,” exploring the paranormal activity at the reformatory. Excerpts and deleted scenes of the episode are available on the network’s Web site at

Contact features reporter Shelley Blundell at [email protected].